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Yet Another Beit Shemesh Blowup
Once again, Beit Shemesh is the world's leading staging ground for conflict between charedim and non-charedim, thanks to Mayor Moshe Abutbul and his charedi municipal coalition.
This time, it's about a school in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Safot V'Tarbiyot. The school is designed to be a prestigious institution serving the secular population of the entire Greater Beit Shemesh area. As such, it is large and well-equipped, and can service a large number of students. But there is low enrollment, due to the fact that many secular Israelis have fled Beit Shemesh as a result of the charedi takeover.
The school is located in an area that has recently become mostly (though not entirely) charedi. The many charedi schools in the area do not have buildings and are located in caravans; somehow, the charedi mayor and coalition were not able to build any schools for them in their previous term. Thus, the charedi population has long wanted to use (part of) the building of Safot V'Tarbiyot.
If you believe the charedi account of events, they have been trying to work this out for years. If you believe the non-charedi account of events, there was never any attempt to work this out, bar a single meeting that was supposed to be held with mayor Abutbul which he did not show up at.
Yesterday, on the day before the new school year, Abutbul decided that the municipality would take matters into its own hands. He sent security guards and workers to break into the school and physically partition it into two schools, one to service the charedi population as a girls' school.
Needless to say, this did not go down very well with the non-charedi population. Physical fights erupted, and the police had to be called in. There is a furious letter from the Ministry of Education threatening Abutbul with serious consequences.
There are several issues to be considered here. One is whether the charedi population is entitled to take over part of the school. On the one hand, it has low enrollment; on the other hand, it is a high-quality school that is supposed to have a lot of rooms for enrichment activities. Apparently, as a result of the separation, the boys and girls in the secular school now have to share a single bathroom.
But the second issue is that even if one takes the position that the charedi population deserves part of the building, surely there is a way to go about doing this. Forcibly creating facts on the ground, on the night before school starts, is guaranteed to cause ill will.
A third issue is that Abutbul did not only divide the school interior into two areas. Outside the school, the playground has a natural division into two areas, due to its being on a terraced incline. The terrace is separated by a barred fence, which would also serve to separate the playground for the newly-divided school. But this barred fence was considered insufficient. Abutbul's workers erected an ugly eight-foot-tall wall along the bars, made out of metal panels. The purpose of this fence was apparently so that the charedi girls should not have to see the secular schoolchildren. The secular population is livid at this. They tried to destroy it this morning, and one person painted on it "Separation Wall - A Disgrace To Zionism!" The police were called in again.
Now, I certainly understand that charedim do not want to expose their children to foreign lifestyles. However, to suddenly take over half a school and build a huge ugly dividing wall in the middle is extremely insensitive. One would think that deracheha darchei noam should be an operating principle. This should be all the more true for a city that suffered terrible internal conflict in the last municipal elections, with Abutbul trying to win votes from moderates by claiming that he is all about love and unity.
But aside from the in-your-face disdain for good community relations, what amazes me is that Abutbul and his coalition do not seem to realize or care how they are harming the charedi community's own national interests. Provoking conflict like this, forcibly taking over a school, with appalling photos and videos playing out in the media, reinforces the view in the rest of Israel that charedim are taking over the country in unpleasant ways.
In the last election campaign, local Anglo-charedi rabbonim such as Rav Kornfeld and Rav Malinowitz fervently tried to berate people into voting for Abutbul. They argued that there is a "war on Torah" and that it is important to strengthen the charedi community. When Abutbul won, I argued that in fact this was going to weaken the charedi community in the national arena.
As I wrote at the time, the charedim are kicking and screaming about the new national government, which is trying to cause many people to leave kollel and change the way in which they educate their children. But the irony is that the particular person most hated for all this, the person who is behind the make-up of the government and its policies, is Yair Lapid. And the single person most responsible for Yair Lapid's extraordinary rise to power is Moshe Abutbul.
It was Mayor Moshe Abutbul's appalling mishandling of Beit Shemesh in general, and the Orot Banot girls' school situation in particular, that drew Beit Shemesh into the headlines, caused the rest of Israel to react with horror, and led to the 19 seats that Yair Lapid won in the Knesset. It was because Abutbul immediately caved in to the extremists, refused to condemn their terrorizing of children, refused to express any support or sympathy for the girls who were being traumatized, and sought to prevent the Orot Banot school from opening, that Bet Shemesh became the focal point from which Lapid drew support.
Exactly as I predicted after the last elections, with the re-election of Abutbul, there are further explosive events in Beit Shemesh. Abutbul continues to give the city a bad name. And the rest of Israel will respond by continuing to give political power to Lapid and Bennet. There are few things that the rest of Israel fear more than a hostile takeover by charedim. Seeing such a takeover happening in Beit Shemesh, as per Rav Aharon Feldman's publicly voiced hope that Beit Shemesh will turn into Bnei Brak, will galvanize the rest of Israel into uniting to prevent the charedi lifestyle from taking over Israel.
(There is already a serious move underway to divide greater Beit Shemesh into two cities and municipalities, one charedi and the other Zionist. This is being advanced by various religious and secular Zionists, and is fiercely opposed by charedim, who need the money and subsidization that the non-charedi population brings in. But what do they expect?)
It's bad news for Beit Shemesh that Abutbul was re-elected. Yet it may well be good news for the State of Israel and the Jewish People.